Investigators still don’t know who was behind the 1990 Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum robbery in Boston, but they have a pretty good idea how they did it.
By Evan McLeod Wylie
Mar 25 2022
Excerpt from “The Night They Robbed the Gardner,” Yankee Magazine, October 1992.
There were a number of visits to the museum, probably by women. They would use women because women blend in much more easily. Among art museum visitors, women far outnumber men. They could have been sent alone or in pairs. They might even be part of a bus tour group. They bought the guidebooks and rented the audio cassettes for the tape tours and drifted around looking over the galleries that were going to be hit and the paintings that were going to be taken. Meanwhile somebody else was checking out the museum security: What guards are on at night? When do the shifts change? When is the best time to go in? That kind of inside information could have been picked up in casual conversation from someone who had worked at the museum. When they had it all together, they picked the date. A weekend is always a favorite time for criminals and a holiday weekend such as St. Patrick’s Day is perfect. —Charles Moore, Massachusetts private investigator who specializes in art thefts.
The time is 2:00 A.M., March 18, 1990. Tires hiss on Fenway Park Drive as a light ram sweeps across Boston. Through the mist streetlamps cast a pale glow upon celebrants from St. Patrick’s Day parties as they straggle down Palace Road past the walled gardens and tall windows of the four-story, pale-brick Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Within the darkened structure rain spatters on the skylights of a balconied Venetian courtyard where, amid Greek and Roman sculptures, a spectacular display of flowering yellow jasmine trees, blue cineraria, creamy white lilies, and Chinese-red nasturtiums heralds the approach of another Easter.
Below the courtyard, in a long corridor in the pitch-black basement, two museum guards lie prone on the concrete floor, arms and legs manacled to heating pipes, rendered deaf, mute, and sightless by broad strips of duct tape wound around their heads. In a second-floor gallery several individuals kneel in front of a huge marble fireplace. The burnished red-tile floor is covered with flecks of oil paint and shards of splintered glass as they use knives, hammers, and chisels to strip some of the world’s most famous paintings from their gilt frames. It’s 3:30 A.M. before the last of the loot is carried out the side door and the gang vanishes. It is the most spectacular art theft of the century and the greatest robbery of modern times.
A wondrous oasis of serenity, charm, and unsurpassed beauty, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is unique among the world’s great museums. It is the only private art collection in which the building and the entire collection are the creation of a single individual, an exuberant, flamboyant socialite who shocked, scandalized, and utterly fascinated Victorian Boston. Behind the public facade, however, was an intelligent, complex woman, a warm-hearted friend and generous benefactor to young writers, artists, sculptors, scholars, and musicians.
After numerous visits to the European capitals with her husband, Jack Gardner, a wealthy Boston businessman, she became an avid collector of fine art. “The greatest need in our country was Art,” she once wrote. “We were a very young country. There were few opportunities of seeing beautiful works of art. I decided to make it my life’s work if I could.”
In 1898 Mrs. Gardner bought land on what was then the edge of the muddy, cattailed Fenway swamps of Boston’s Back Bay. On New Year’s Day 1903, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum officially opened with a concert by the 50-piece Boston Symphony Orchestra. Guests — some of whom had been brought by private train from New York — were overwhelmed by balconies hung with flame-colored lanterns, candlelit galleries, masses of spring flower, and splashing fountains. Since that day the Gardner Museum has drawn art lovers from all over the world.
During its public hours, each of its 25 galleries and cloisters is constantly scrutinized by one or more uniformed guards hovering discreetly in the background. At night the guard staff is reduced, but an elaborate electronic security system maintains an invisible silent vigil. While some guards go back many years, there are also college students who prize the opportunity to work part-time amid such treasures. (A tradition begun by Mrs. Gardner, who preferred Harvard students to Pinkerton men as her museum guards.)
Just before 5:00 P.M. on the evening of March 17, 1990, the booming notes of a Japanese temple gong signaled the closing of the museum. Huge steel doors were bolted, and soon the museum was deserted save for two young guards, a musician and an art student. One of the guards, carrying a flashlight and a portable radio, patrolled the galleries. The other sat behind a watch desk next to the Palace Road service entrance monitoring the security-systems alarms and TV cameras. High on the wall on the outside of the building, a small TV camera continuously scanned Palace Road and the side entrance. On this night Anne Hawley, the museum’s recently appointed director was dining on nearby Beacon Street. Hawley was the first director in the Gardner’s history who did not dwell in the fourth-floor apartment once occupied by Isabella Stewart Gardner. Although it was after midnight when the dinner party ended, Hawley considered stopping at the museum, but decided instead to return to her suburban home.
At 1:24 A.M. on Sunday morning someone rang the bell at the Palace Road entrance. On the TV monitor the guard at the watch desk saw two men in police uniforms. He pressed the button on an outdoor speaker system and asked, “What’s going on?”
“Boston Police,” one man said. “We have a report of a disturbance in your outdoor compound. Have you seen or heard anything?”
“No,” replied the guard. ” It’s been quiet here all night.”
“Any other guards on duty?” asked the policeman.
“One,” the watch desk guard said. “He’s upstairs doing rounds.”
“Call him down and let us in,” the policeman said. “We’ll have to check out the garden compound.”
Because of a recent series of violent incidents in the area, including the highly publicized murder of Carol Stuart, the guard pressed a buzzer to admit the two men. Both were white. Both wore what appeared to be police uniforms with belts and caps. One carried a portable radio. Both had mustaches and wore glasses. One man was in his early thirties, more than six feet tall with dark hair and eyes and a heavy build. The other was in his late thirties. He was about 5’6″, with a slim build, pronounced jaw, dark hair and eyes and was wearing gold-rimmed glasses.
As they waited for the second guard to come down from the upper floors, the two men leaned against the counter of the watch desk and chatted casually. “It’s probably only a couple of kids fooling around out in the garden,” one said, “a couple of leftovers from a St. Paddy’s Day party.”
Suddenly the two visitors became aggressive. “You look familiar to me,” one said to the guard behind the watch desk. “Have you got an ID?”
“Sure,” said the guard, reaching in his pocket as he came out from behind the desk.
“I think I’ve got an arrest warrant on you,” the man snapped. “Turn around! Both of you!”
In a flash both guards were spun around and flung roughly up against the wall. Before they knew what was happening, their hands had been manacled behind them.
“Don’t talk about us or you’ll be sorry,” they were warned.
Strips of plastic tape were wrapped around their eyes, ears, and mouths. They were hustled down a nearby flight of steps to the basement, taken to opposite ends of a long corridor, manacled to heating pipes, and left to lie on the concrete floor.
The museum now belonged to the thieves. Displaying a knowledge of museum security, they yanked around the video cameras that were taping them. Breaking open the locked security room, they destroyed videocassettes and switched off a central computer that continuously recorded any movements in the galleries, but they failed to destroy completely a part of the system that later revealed some of their activities within the museum.
Meanwhile, two or more of the gang raced to a second-floor gallery named the Dutch Room, which features the masterpieces of 17th-century Dutch painters. Removing Rembrandt’s Storm on the Sea of Galilee and A Lady and Gentleman in Black from the wall, they placed them on the floor and used chisels, screwdrivers, and sharp knives to cut the canvases from their large gilt frames.
The Concert, a much-esteemed painting by Jan Vermeer and The Obelisk by Goevert Flinck were also removed from their frames. Near the door, the thieves grabbed a Rembrandt etching, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, from a carved oak cabinet and snatched up an ancient bronze Chinese vase of the Shang Dynasty from about 1200 B.C. from a table. A fourth Rembrandt Self-Portrait was taken from the wall, but curiously was abandoned on the floor.
They then headed down a corridor to the front of the building, passed through a gallery filled with early Italian and Renaissance art, including works by Raphael, and went into the Short Gallery where they stripped five watercolors and drawings by the French painter Edgar Degas from hanging wooden panels designed by Isabella Stewart Gardner, but passed up a Michelangelo drawing and six lithographs by James McNeill Whistler. Climbing a marble-topped French Empire table, they unscrewed a bronze eagle that adorned a gold embroidered battle flag of one of Napoleon’s regiments.
In a first-floor gallery named the Blue Room, a thief seized a painting by the French painter Edouard Manet, Chez Tortoni, but ignored extremely valuable works by the American painter John Singer Sargent and the French painters of the 19th century — Delacroix, Corbet, and Corot.
Not until about 3:30 A.M. on Sunday morning did the thieves depart, locking the Palace Road door behind them. The Mass. Turnpike and interstates 93 and 95, which could help them speed to distant parts of the nation, were only minutes away.
About 7:00 A.M. a maintenance worker arrived at the museum and pressed the bell to be admitted. Hearing no reply, he decided that the guards must be somewhere else in the building. About 7:20 a young female guard arrived and was told by the worker that he was still waiting for a response. Together they rang the bell and rapped on the windows.
“Something is wrong!” the newly arrived guard exclaimed.
The Fenway was deserted. They fanned out looking for a public phone for the guard to call her supervisor. About 20 minutes passed before he arrived and used a passkey to enter from a door in the garden. Calling out for the two guards as he made his way through the dark and eerily quiet corridors, he reached the watch desk, noted a broken picture frame on the floor, and saw that the door of the security room had been kicked in. Seizing a telephone, he called the Boston Police and then Lyle Grindle, chief of security.
“We’ve had a robbery,” he told him. “Both guards are missing.”
“Have you called the police?” the security man asked.
“They’re on their way.”
“Don’t let anybody but the police inside,” Grindle said. “I’ll be there as quickly as I can.”
Boston Detective Sergeant Paul Crossen was driving on the Southeast Expressway when he heard the robbery reported on his police radio. He sped to the scene of the crime and took command as police cruisers surrounded the museum.
The first task was to determine what had happened. Had the missing guards been taken hostage? Were they somewhere in the building — dead or alive? Were thieves still in the museum? Might there be a bomb hidden somewhere in the galleries?
With guns drawn and the guard supervisor as their guide, police proceeded to the fifth-floor attic and cautiously moved down from floor to floor through each of the galleries. Nearly 30 minutes later they reached the basement and discovered the two young guards. Badly shaken by their ordeal, they were carried outside to ambulances to be treated before they could be questioned.
City and state police joined forces with the FBI. Descriptions of the two thieves flashed across the country. Airport security guards, major seaport authorities, and U.S. Customs agents at the nation’s borders were alerted. Overseas, Scotland Yard and Interpol, the international police organization with branches in 30 countries, were notified.
Acting museum curator Karen Haas had intended to work a few quiet hours on Sunday. Rounding the corner at 8:30 A.M., she was horrified to find Palace Road jammed with police cars and bomb squad trucks. She and Anne Hawley and Lyle Grindle would spend most of Sunday conducting a painstaking search of the galleries to determine which of the Gardner’s 2,000 paintings, sculptures, and other treasures were missing.
That evening Hawley announced the theft consisted of 12 works by Rembrandt, Degas, Manet, Vermeer, and Flinck and the bronze Chinese Shang Dynasty vase. The loss of the bronze eagle atop the Napoleon battleflag would not be noted until later. The value of the stolen art was estimated at $200 million.
For three days the Gardner remained sealed off as FBI specialists dusted for footprints, searched for shreds of clothing or a personal possession that might provide clues. All evidence was sorted, bagged, and flown to the FBI crime laboratories in Washington, D.C. More than 25 FBI agents, including those who specialized in art thefts, were assigned to the case.
The museum had no theft insurance. Not only would the premiums have been prohibitively high, Hawley explained, but Mrs. Gardner’s will prohibited the museum from acquiring replacements for any stolen paintings. Two noted art auction houses, Sotheby’s and Christie’s, joined with private corporations in offering a reward of $1 million for information leading to the safe return of the missing art. Hundreds of tips poured into the police and FBI offices from the public, art dealers, and prison inmates seeking to trade information for reduced sentences and paroles.
While curators and art lovers anguished over the loss of some of the world’s most precious paintings, shock waves from the theft reverberated around the world. “So much art theft is kept quiet,” says Joan Norris, the museum spokeswoman. “This theft stripped the silence away.”
According to Constance Lowenthal, executive director of the International Foundation for Art Research, a nonprofit organization that keeps record of stolen works, “Art theft is a $2-billion-dollar-a-year business in the form of burglaries, gallery thefts, and the looting of archeological sites.”
In the underworld, art has joined drugs, gold, and diamonds as valuable collateral for deals and payoffs. Enormously wealthy South American drug barons pay any price for works of art to hang in their palatial villas. In Europe, the Middle East, and Japan, private collectors pay huge sums for art works without asking where they came from. In Japan, for example, art collectors are entitled to keep any art works that they have owned for more than two years and did not know were stolen.
By far the most baffling aspect of the Gardner theft, however, was why, with the entire museum at their mercy for more than two hours, the thieves passed up so many other valuable paintings and small art objects. Art authorities pointed out that the stolen paintings by Rembrandt, Vermeer, and Manet are so famous that they can never be sold, traded, or displayed in a private collection without instantly being recognized.
Calling it “one of the dumbest robberies ever,” one expert commented that, “the paintings are simply too hot to handle and that makes their street value next to nothing.” He predicted that the paintings would soon be anonymously returned or abandoned in some public building.
Two and a half years later, however, the paintings seem to have vanished off the face of the earth. Neither law enforcement authorities nor art experts believe that there will be a solution soon, though people continue to be questioned.
Charles Moore, a Massachusetts private investigator who in his career has helped recover an estimated $20 million worth of stolen paintings, scoffs at the notion that the Gardner theft was carried out by blunderers.
“Those people,” Moore says, “were heavy hitters, not common thieves. The Gardner theft was a carefully constructed major crime, planned for weeks, probably months. It was a deal that was put together out of town. The two guys who showed up at the door dressed as cops were not locals.
“And there could have been as many as six to eight people involved,” he continues. “Once the guards were grabbed, the thieves owned the museum. They could have admitted other individuals through the Palace Road door. They could use the museum phones to make calls. They probably brought their own portable radios, and they also had the guards’ radios.
“Outside, they probably had a radio-equipped lookout to tip them off about police activity. They also probably had a wheelman to drive the getaway car — but he could have been a mile away in an all-night diner, drinking coffee, reading the morning paper, where he wouldn’t attract attention. Maybe he had a radio, too. When the word came, he returned to Palace Road. When the street was clear, around 3:30, out they came, fast, into the car and were gone.
“The second car — the lookout’s car — pulled out behind them. He would go slow or even pretend to stall until the first car was gone. Then there was a third car, probably a small van. It was waiting close by. The paintings were transferred to that van, which had never been seen near the Gardner, and off they go. It’s only 4:00 A.M., and they’re heading out of town.”
Moore offers an explanation for why more art was not stolen. “Those guys were professionals, but they didn’t know art. They had a list and a floor plan and that was it. They left with what they had been paid to take — except I suspect that the Chinese vase and the bronze eagle were grabbed as small items that could be easily traded.”
In Moore’s opinion, the stolen paintings still may not have reached their destination. “They were taken somewhere that night — it could have been a place in New England. The people who stole them that night don’t know where they went after that or who wanted them. They were paid cash to do the job and that was that. Later they were moved to New York or Miami, and they are probably still sitting there waiting for the search to die down. I doubt very much if they’ve left the country yet. Nobody in the Boston underworld who might be a tipster has any real good information. After two years somebody would have come forward — at least to test the waters. All we hear, so far, are rumors.”
Other experts in art theft concur with Moore. “Two years is nothing,” says Sheila Cantor of SPI, a Washington, D.C.-based agency that investigates stolen art. Constance Lowenthal comments, “Once the paintings didn’t show up very quickly, it was to be expected that nothing might happen for a long time.” Gardner officials take solace knowing that historically it takes from five to seven years to recover stolen art and that the more famous the work, the higher the chance of recovery.
The museum staff admits they are more cautious now. “We watch visitors more closely,” says spokeswoman Joan Norris. The FBI still calls weekly. “60 Minutes” is planning a fall segment on the theft. The only visible signs of the robbery are the index-sized cards mounted on tables with the name of the painting and the artist printed in black ink in front of the empty spaces on the wall.
“Mrs. Gardner’s will said the museum was ‘for the enjoyment of the public forever,”’ says Norris. “It’s our responsibility to protect this art forever, not just for today. And we will wait forever for them to come back. We expect them to come back.”
Excerpt from “’The Night They Robbed the Gardner,” Yankee Magazine, October 1992.